Exotic yet familiar, exciting, and entertaining.
Indian Jazz Journey, with George Brooks and Kala Ramnath
Exotic yet familiar, exciting, and entertaining.
Tenor sax sage George Brooks has it all: The colossal tone, the intuitive creative leaps, the commanding technique. Fresh out of New England Conservatory, George pursued his muse down two very divergent paths; he’s been the go-to horn-master for blues giants like Etta James, Albert Collins, Roy Rogers, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. And, amazingly, he’s helped create the electrifying genre of Indian/jazz fusion with world-class virtuosi like Zakir Hussain, Fareed Haque, and John McLaughlin. This year’s SJW concert is a special moment uniting George with renowned Indian violinist Kala Ramnath, whose unique, otherworldly sound will entrance you. The music draws from Indian ragas and rhythmic patterns, with which Ramnath and Brooks create an accessible blend of the profound and ecstatic, supported by a world-class rhythm section that includes Macarthur Fellowship grantee and and Cuban percussion master Dafnis Prieto.
George Brooks, saxophone
Kala Ramnath, violin
Osam Ezzeldin, piano
Dafnis Prieto, percussion
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These days, violinist Kala Ramnath can be found collaborating with some of the world’s greatest musicians inside and outside of classical Indian music. One week she’s performing with the London Philharmonic, and the next she might be mixing it up with bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, or collaborating with violinist Hilary Hahn, or playing a classical Hindustani recital with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. The scion of a renowned musical dynasty, she grew up fully expecting to follow her family’s well-trod traditional path, a road traveled by six previous generations of violinists. But an unexpected encounter with a 1960s rock star changed her musical course, opening a portal to far-flung explorations.
Back in 1996, Ramnath was spending some time in Los Angeles when a mutual friend introduced her to Ray Manzarek, who gained fame with The Doors. An impromptu jam left the keyboardist slack-jawed, and he suggested they arrange a performance together. Ramnath was game but a little uncertain as to Manzarek’s background, so she called her younger brother, asking, “have you heard of The Doors?” she says. “My brother’s a rock fan, and he was literally jumping up and down. Playing with Ray was an eye opener that put me on the path to listening to different types of music. I started keeping my eyes and ears open all the time.”
Perhaps her interest in musical exploration isn’t surprising. Ramnath was born and raised in the southern Indian city of Chennai, the cultural heart of the Carnatic classical world. But from an early age she felt drawn to the North Indian Hindustani tradition, and spent more than a decade studying intensively with revered Mewati vocalist Pandit Jasraj. Celebrated for her virtuosic technique and lush, singing tone, Ramnath has joined forces with a glittering roster of international artists, from Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, to banjo star Béla Fleck to Uzbecki percussionist Abbos Kossimov.
American classical violinist Hilary Hahn commissioned her to contribute a composition to the Grammy Award-winning 2013 album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. James Newton Howard featured her on his score for the 2006 film Blood Diamond. She’s also become a regular presence in American roots music settings, serving as faculty at the summer Shasta String Summit run by sibling old-time fiddle champions Tristan and Tashina Clarridge.
Ramnath has forged particularly deep ties with Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks, who recruited her for his third consecutive year presenting an all-star Indo-jazz summit at the festival (following 2014’s Bombay Jazz performance with guitar great Larry Coryell, flutist Ronu Majumdar and tabla expert Aditya Kalyanpur, and last year’s breathtaking summit with the legendary South Indian father-son percussion tandem of Vikku Vinayakram and V. Selvaganesh, bassist Kai Eckhardt and pianist Osam Ezzeldin).
Ezzeldin, who was born in Egypt and studied jazz at Berklee, returns for this concert, which also features the extraordinary Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto. A MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient, Prieto is an acclaimed bandleader and composer who has been at the forefront of a brilliant wave of Latin American artists reshaping the New York City jazz scene over the past two decades. While a handful of jazz drummers have immersed themselves in classical Indian forms — Steve Smith and Dan Weiss most prominently — Prieto entered the Indo-jazz fold via Brooks when he subbed in a New York version of Bombay Jazz with Larry Coryell.
“He really liked the Indian stuff and he understood it intuitively, but he’s not schooled in it,” Brooks says. “He’s got so much musicality. He does this vocal percussion thing that’s evocative of konnakol, the South Indian vocal percussion practice. Since he’s seen that, he’s familiar with his relationship to that system.”
While this is the first time this particular lineup has performed together, the musicians all share overlapping ties. “We’ve all been dancing around with each other,” Brooks says. “And we all played together last summer in India with tabla and bass.”
Introduced to Ramnath by Zakir Hussain, with whom he’s collaborated extensively over the past two decades, Brooks has carved out a singular niche as an American improviser capable of meeting classical Indian musicians on their own terms. He and Ramnath have also performed widely in the trio Elements with Dutch harp virtuoso Gwyneth Wentink.
Ramnath and Brooks have composed several pieces together, like “Better Than Coffee,” a tune built on a piece by tabla legend Alla Rakha (Zakir Hussain’s father) set to a seven-beat cycle. Their pentatonic raga “Dark Blue” is a vehicle for extended modal improvisation, à la John Coltrane. Brooks’ best known tune is “McCoy,” a 6/8 piece with an almost Afro-Caribbean feel that’s been interpreted by numerous Indian musicians on violin, sitar, bansuri, and other instruments.
“George knows a lot about Indian music, and he can understand what I’m thinking and where I’m coming from,” Ramnath says. “It’s very hard to find people who can give you a musical reply to what you’re doing, keeping with the continuity of the thought. That’s what makes George’s music really stand out.”
For Ramnath, every musical encounter is grist for her ever-expanding creative realm, a journey that started with an unexpected door. “There’s something to learn from every musician I meet,” she said. “So whether it’s classical or jazz or flamenco, I learn something from every genre and it comes out in my writing. Before, I wasn’t looking outside of what I was doing. Now my vision has become really wide.”
Saturday, June 25